Brain Anatomy: Understanding Virginia Penhune's February 2013 article

I found another researcher I wish to emulate: Virginia B. Penhune from Concordia University. She received her BA when I was four years old, but like Judy Willis, Penhune inspires me that I can still meet my career interests even if I don't have my PhD just yet. Penhune's recent studies remind me of my intended dissertation topic.

Her most recent research looked at the correlation of brain development and music lessons taken before age seven. For those who have been following my blog, you know I wanted to look at the correlation between the number of years a student takes of performance music classes and academic performance. While my dissertation study still needed some hashing out, which I was unable to do before I withdrew, I am excited to read of Penhune's findings.

I could tell you that her paper, written by both her and three other colleagues, is exciting in that its results prove a lot of what I already believe, but I can't do that because I've realized there's a lot I need to learn about brain anatomy and the methods used for this study. I really wish I had an opportunity to take a neuroanatomy, or anatomy of the brain, course, but for now, I'm going to have to learn things on my own.

  • White Matter: Occupying 60% of the brain, the white matter consists of nerve fibers. The white matter is responsible for communication throughout the brain and controls temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate. This area of the brain has only recently become important in the study of neuroscience. Rather than considering white matter, neuroscientists have concerned themselves with the other 40% of the brain, called grey matter. Neuroscientist have since realized that if the white matter is not functioning properly, the brain cannot communicate properly with itself or with the rest of the body. Finally, white matter takes at least 20 years to fully develop.
  • Plasticity: The ability of the brain to change. This ability can be enhanced or hindered.
  • Corpus Callosum: An area deep within the brain that connects the left hemisphere with the right hemisphere. The front part of the corpus callosum, called the genu, is bigger in left-handed people. Like the white matter, the corpus callosum is responsible in communication. And, like the white matter, damage to the corpus callosum can create problems with motor and speech skills.
  • Sensitive Period: Like the brain has two areas (white and grey matter), early development can be defined by two periods: critical and sensitive periods. The critical period is defined as the time between birth and age three. The critical period of development is a time when infants/toddlers are most responsive to stimulation. Sensitive periods also begin at birth, but can last up to ten years. The sensitive period is a bit broader than simple stimulation. During sensitive periods, infants/toddlers/children gain social, emotional, and mental skills. Montessori schools describe the period between ages 3 and 6 as opportunities for "self-mastery" and "seek out actions and activities that correspond with their development". Montessori schools add a child will begin to organize information to which they have been exposed after age 7.
I'll look at the methods and conclusion of Penhune's study in my next blog.

Steele, C.J., Bailey, J.A., Zatorre, R.J., and Penhune, V.B. (2013). Early musical training and white-matter plasticity in the corpus callosum: Evidence for a sensitive period. Journal of neuroscience, 33(3), 1282-1290.
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